For the 53rd year, Florida Gulf Coast University professor Peter Bergerson is teaching college-level political science classes. The upcoming presidential election will also be the 14th of his professorial career. Despite seeing what he thought was everything campaigns have to offer, the 2016 and now 2020 election seasons have produced enough surprises to keep the man excited about the topic that’s occupied most of his life.
“I still wake up on election day feeling like a child on Christmas morning,” Bergerson said. “I would add that the child would also need to be one who fully believes in Santa Claus. That’s me.”
As it turns out, politics and Peter Bergerson are a match made in … Indiana. He grew up in the tiny town of Long Beach. Even though it claims less than 1,200 people, Long Beach has connections with several notable individuals, including U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. There, in the mid-1950s, Bergerson remembers recognizing the importance of the presidency for the first time.
“I became friends with one of the sons of legendary University of Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy. When I visited my friend’s house for the first time, I learned that his dad often went golfing with President Eisenhower. I told my parents – they were impressed and, naturally, so was I,” Bergerson said.
The year was 1956. Bergerson was 13, and Eisenhower was working toward his reelection. The connection with someone who knew the president made Bergerson pay a bit closer attention to the race for the White House. The attention turned into a passion, and Bergerson started memorizing the names of the presidents and those of other elected officials.
“I also followed the presidential campaign and election of 1960 very closely,” Bergerson said. “I was a senior in high school taking an American government class, which encouraged my interest. I even kept a scrapbook of the campaign from clippings I cut from the Chicago papers.”
Fittingly, Bergerson started teaching his first college-level political science class months before the 1968 presidential election. He rose from an instructor to a full professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Southeast Missouri State University. He did his job so well that the city – Cape Girardeau, Missouri – designated May 15, 1985, as “Peter J. Bergerson Day.”
Bergerson taught in Missouri through the elections of seven U.S. presidents. Then, in 2002, he jumped at the chance to move to Fort Myers for a professor position at Florida Gulf Coast University. While the prospect of helping create a new political science department excited Bergerson, he jokingly says he has five reasons for taking the FGCU position: November, December, January, February and March.
Southwest Florida’s winter climate is still something Bergerson appreciates, but the state’s politics keep him busy. In the last 18 years, Bergerson has emerged as the expert’s expert when it comes to Florida politics. You can often find him offering his thoughts on political issues in the local media. He is also interviewed, from time to time, by national outlets like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, C-SPAN and the New York Post.
“I’ve been so fortunate to be able to do something for 53 years that I really love every day,” Bergerson said. “The opportunity Florida Gulf Coast University gave me to come here and be part of a growing, dynamic institution is really special. I mean that in so many ways.”
His insight may be sought by the press and devoured by the public, but Bergerson follows a credo in his classroom.
“The lasting importance of acquiring knowledge is for individuals to come to it by their own intellectual resources, rather than from me,” he said.
The professor has flirted with the idea of retirement, but he is reluctant to set a date. Why would he? He is in a job that allows him to focus on his passion and share it with hundreds of people year after year.
“Campaigns and elections are like a movie or a story. There is a drama about them because, in most cases, we don’t know who is going to win until the very end. In four of the last seven presidential elections, the winning candidate won by less than a majority vote. For me, it’s like reading or watching a thriller. It’s not just who won but how they win. There’s an art to campaigning and it speaks to my competitive spirit,” Bergerson said.
After 50 years of studying elections, there is one prediction Bergerson is willing to make for the contest on Nov. 3, 2020.
“President Trump is either going to be elected or he’s going to lose,” Bergerson said with a chuckle. “One of the things I learned from four years ago is that there are always surprises and trying to make a winning prediction more than 50 days out is foolish. Anything can happen. The Jell-O hasn’t set yet.”